Less than two months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, federal officials approved new visas for two of the hijackers who commandeered jetliners and flew them into the World Trade Center, the head of the Florida aviation school where they received flight training told MSNBC.com on Tuesday.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service approved one of the men, Mohammed Atta, even though he had previously re-entered the country several times on expired visas and was on a CIA terrorist "watch list."
The visas were approved last July and August, but the letters notifying the school, Huffman Aviation in Venice, Fla., were not mailed until March 5, almost six months after both men died in the suicide attacks. The INS blamed a large backlog of data in old processing equipment.
The visa approvals staggered lawmakers who have called for the nation's immigration laws to be toughened in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
"The fact that the INS sent out two letters regarding the student visas of two known terrorist hijackers — a full six months after the terrible events of September 11th — is outrageous," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told MSNBC.com via e-mail. "My fear is that it is still business as usual at INS even in the aftermath of the most devastating terror attack on U.S. soil."
Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, said approval of the visas "clearly demonstrates the immediate need for improvements in the data systems and the visa operations at the INS through the Senate's swift enactment" of legislation she has co-sponsored with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Approval mailed long after attacks
The two men, Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, are believed to have been at the controls of the planes that slammed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
Huffman Aviation received paperwork Monday notifying it that the INS had approved requests by Atta and Al-Shehhi for M-1 student visas, the school's president, Rudi Dekkers, said in an interview with MSNBC.com.
The visas are required for foreign nationals who are in the country to attend technical classes but often were not treated as a high priority before Sept. 11. Dekkers said it was common for some time to elapse before schools were notified of such approval for their students, but he said a delay of 1½ years was unusual.
Aviation school says it's cleared
Dekkers said no one from the INS had yet contacted him about the paperwork, which he said he was happy to receive because it laid to rest questions that had been raised about the school's role in training Atta and Al-Shehhi.
"It shows we handled everything properly," Dekkers said.
But the development does raise further questions about the INS's policies on immigration visas and coordination with other agencies.
The INS statement said that at the time the visas were approved last summer, it "had no information indicating that Atta or Al-Shehhi had ties to terrorist organizations." Atta, however, was on a government terrorist watch list at the time, information that was not shared with the INS until after the approval was granted.
Atta also had left the country and re-entered at least three times on previous expired visas, arousing immigration officials' suspicions the third time he returned, six months earlier. In addition, a warrant was out for his arrest because he had skipped a court hearing in May in Broward County, Fla., where he had been arrested for driving without a license.
Officials have described Atta as a central figure in their investigation. Investigators say they have uncovered evidence that he met with Islamic extremists in Spain, conferred with an Iraqi intelligence agent and re-entered the United States despite being on the immigration "watch list."
Once in the country, investigators said, he inquired about crop dusters in Florida and exchanged wire transfers of money with a suspected top aide to Osama bin Laden.